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‘India Xianzhai’: The best of contemporary art showcased in Shanghai
Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) has become the first major art museum in China to unveil a grand show of Indian contemporary art. Entitled ‘India Xianzai’ (India Now), it showcases probably one of the largest ever collections from the country displayed in China.

The works on view collectively provide a timely glimpse of the growing presence and importance of Indian contemporary art. They strive to act as a link between what constitutes Indian-ness in the context of contemporary art and today's 'global' community. Putting the exhibition in a broader context, an accompanying note mentions: “India is undergoing a phenomenal transformation as the country develops, and new cities escalate into modern metropolises. However, this rapid expansion has not hindered the impulse towards international standards, while fostering its own economic and social values.”

In a way, ‘India Xianzai’ is an examination of various processes, narrative structures and aesthetic strategies focusing on the question of culture as an agency in artistic expression. Importantly, this is not just any exhibit but a museum show. Spelling out the strategy of the museum, its Chairman and Director Samuel Kung states: “Under the city's umbrella of influence, we hope to act as a catalyst in the arts arena, as well as an interpreter in the growing cultural dialogue between China and the world.”

With ‘India Xianzai’, MoCA is doing its bit to spread the word on Indian art in association with Seven Art Limited, ICIA (Institute of Contemporary Indian Art) and ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations). The ambitious and meticulous curatorial exercise has been an outcome of thorough research on Indian contemporary art undertaken by Alexander Keefe and Diana Freundl. “Why not increase people-to-people contact in the field of arts and culture as part of an effort to develop more productive channels for communication?” the former asks in an interview, delighted at being able to offer Indian artists much-deserved exposure. “If this show can contribute, in some modest way, to that end, it would be a wonderful thing.”

It took well over a year to plan, conceptualize, visualize and organize the show, involving a series of visits on either side and a flurry of emails. Underlining its significance, Keefe states, “There are some very obvious parallels between Indian and Chinese contemporary art. Many of Indian contemporary artists and gallery owners witnessed the meteoric rise of Chinese artists a few years ago and then found themselves also suddenly on ascendency –in terms of the market. There has definitely been a globalization of the contemporary art market. Major part of it has been focused on Indian and Chinese artists.”

The India-based curator has assisted in process of the artist selection. The art expert describes the group of participating artists as a very strong one, adding that the exhibition provides a representative survey of several encouraging developments happening on Indian contemporary art scene in the recent years. This spectacular survey of Indian art boasts over 60 incredible pieces of work, several of them specifically created for the show. The impressive list of participating artists comprises established and emerging talent from India including names such as Atul Dodiya, Anju Dodiya, Hema Upadhyay, Probir Gupta, Reena Kallat, Jagannath Panda, Justin Ponmany, Mithu Sen, Schandra Singh, Suhasini Kejriwal, Chitra Ganesh, Fariba Alam, Vivek Vilasini, Vibha Galhotra, Suryakant Lokhande, Susanta Mandal, T. V. Santhosh, Thukral and Tagra. All of them are internationally recognized for their excellent body of work in a wide range of media.

The exhibition is based on the premise that India’s rich culture and history has inspired artists, not only within India, but also those residing abroad. Diana Freundl, art director of Art+ Shanghai, thought of the ambitious art project while earlier being associated with MoCA. The curator elaborates in an interview, “Its structure is based on a common thread that demonstrates an active socio-political and cultural engagement with one’s home country and how each artist tends to react to the Indian-ness being projected outside of the country.”

On view are paintings, sculptures, installations and other new media works that tackle today’s sociopolitical concerns. There’s Schandra Singh, a dynamic artist from the US, who showcases two paintings, both visually evocative and intense portraits. They are really striking, particularly her Kali portrait. Keefe terms it ‘an aquatic, expressionist portraiture - swirling and patterned.’

Suhasini Kejriwal’s paintings and sculptures are far more restrained and controlled, while Mithu Sen’s work maintains a fine balance between the beautiful and the ghastly. The artistic duo of Thukral and Tagra, known for straddling the worlds of fine art and graphic design, is perceived as the chronicler of the new generation: brand-conscious, consumerist, yet socially aware.

On the other hand, Susanta Mandal has developed an idiosyncratic sculptural idiom. It has a rather restricted palette of mechanical means, moving parts, lights, often bubbles and steam. T. V. Santhosh and Subodh Gupta are among the topmost contemporary Indian artists who make their presence felt at the exhibition alongside Jitish Kallat whose ‘Universal Recipient’ is being exhibited. Another attraction at the show is his ‘Aquasaurus’ that forms part of his critically applauded series of vehicles assembled with fascinating fibreglass bones.

As spectators we are encouraged to examine 'art' as feature or expression of ethnic identity within society, and likewise to question the notion of culture as an identifying force when viewing art. In this context, ‘India Xianzai’ touches upon the topic of cultural assimilation, which concerns not only India, but also many expanding Asian countries. According to Diana Freundl, the response to the exhibition has been extremely encouraging. The curator asserts that viewers have shown a lot of interest in the works displayed, which definitely is a very positive sign.